Current Issue

Jan. 16, 2013

Vol. 113, No. 6


The D-I-Y road to stardom

How indie artists have become masters of invention

By Bianca Bosker ’08
Published in the January 16, 2013, issue

Baiyu Chen ’08 performs at the release party for her recent mixtape, “Hunter,” at the New York City store of clothing designer Custo Barcelona, in June.Baiyu Chen ’08 performs at the release party for her recent mixtape, “Hunter,” at the New York City store of clothing designer Custo Barcelona, in June.
Baiyu Chen ’08 performs at the release party for her recent mixtape, “Hunter,” at the New York City store of clothing designer Custo Barcelona, in June.Baiyu Chen ’08 performs at the release party for her recent mixtape, “Hunter,” at the New York City store of clothing designer Custo Barcelona, in June.

For the last nine hours, Baiyu Chen ’08 — known at Princeton as Sara — has been at her desk at an advertising office in midtown Man­hattan, planning digital marketing campaigns for clients on digital sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Now it’s 6:30 p.m., and her real job is beginning.

Chen, a pop and R&B singer who has self-produced three albums and whose songs have been downloaded more than 400,000 times, soon will go to a friend’s performance at a nightclub downtown, where she hopes to rub shoulders with record-label talent scouts (known in the business as “A&Rs,” for “artist and repertoire”), press, and potential collaborators. While other Manhattan 20-somethings are cueing up an episode of Homeland and debating what to have delivered for dinner, Chen will spend the next few hours networking, tweeting with fans, and angling for the big break that will propel her to Lady Gaga-dom.

She looks the part, dressed in a black leather jacket, stiletto boots, bright red pants, and chunky gold jewelry that scream “star!” Tellingly, Chen refers to her outfits as “costumes.”

Forget “singer-songwriter”: Chen belongs to a new generation of independent artists who must be the talent, publicist, manager, producer, videographer, stylist, and marketing expert all in one. (Classical artists, too, are doing more themselves: Crista Kende ’07, for example, made a video and posted it at to raise money for a new viola.) In her quest to become a “household name,” Chen is using the online technology that has both revolutionized her industry and made it harder for many artists to support themselves through music.

“Most of the artists I’m seeing are really becoming entrepreneurs and are focused on creating a brand,” says Andrea Johnson, an associate professor of music business and management at Berklee College of Music in Boston. “Artists have to be their own best ­promoter so that they rise to the level of significance that will make a major label or management agency put money behind them.”

“Basically,” she adds, “all independent artists are mini-moguls.”

Chen’s path to mini-mogul began with the hip-hop rhythms of artists such as Mariah Carey, Lauryn Hill, and Boyz II Men, whom she discovered in Xiamen, China, where she lived until she was 8 years old. These American singers “opened me up to a universe where you were able to emote through music,” Chen says.

She found her first professional singing gig, like many that were to follow, on the Internet. As a 17-year-old junior in high school in Gaithersburg, Md., Chen found an ad on Craigslist for an Asian-American girl group seeking a fourth and final member. She auditioned over the phone and convinced the producers — and her parents — to let her give it a shot. She headed on her own to New York, where a grueling “boot camp” awaited her. The group disbanded after six months without releasing an album, when its label, FUBU Records, folded. Chen returned to high school, then enrolled at Princeton in 2004.

When she wasn’t performing with one of three campus dance groups or singing with the University Jazz Ensem­ble, Chen was recording her own songs on her laptop in common areas of dorms in Mathey College. She also commuted to New York for meetings with music-industry insiders, recordings, and a gig as a video DJ on a cable television series, The Freshmen, which spotlighted emerging artists. The show provided visibility, but even better was the access it afforded to exclusive music events where she could hobnob with producers and press — a must in an industry that requires getting past record-company ­gatekeepers.

Chen, who recently lectured at a Yale University workshop on Asian-Americans breaking through career stereotypes, has supplemented her in-person networking with virtual ­networking, using a humming online music scene to find artists interested in producing her music or collaborating with her. She maintains a YouTube account (5 million views), two Face­book pages (one boasts 9,755 fans), a Twitter account (104,000 followers), a Wiki­pedia page, a Myspace profile, and a website, She regu­larly updates her social-media accounts with photos of herself on the red carpet, preparing for magazine photo shoots, and party-hopping.

“Everything is press building on top of press. Half my day is spent on press — answering messages from fans, connecting with people I work with online or in real life, tweeting,” says Chen, who posts up to 14 tweets a day. Online and offline, she works hard to project an image of a hip up-and-coming star. She takes pains to suggest to outsiders that she has a big operation behind her. She lists ­multiple email addresses on her site, several of which are linked to her personal email account.

“One of the tricks I’ve found out is to make my team look fuller than it is,” says Chen, who works with a manager and two publicists. “It’s all psychological. I have publicists, and they’ll come and bring their assistants to meetings. The perception of having a huge team makes it look like they can’t take advantage of you.”

Just a few decades ago, most of these tasks were managed by recording companies, not by their artists. But the ­digital distribution of music turned the industry’s economics upside down. In 2010, Forrester Research, a New York-based consulting firm, reported that music sales had plunged from more than $14 billion to $6.3 ­billion in a decade, causing widespread layoffs and prompting the industry to look for new business ­models.

Not long ago, independent labels often would cover the costs of producing and promoting the work of emerging artists, serving as a stepping-stone to larger contracts. But today, music executives require indie artists to do more for themselves before even approaching a label, which means performers must be savvy self-promoters as well as skilled musicians.

The technological revolution has both lowered the barriers to entry in the music industry and raised the barriers to sustainable financial success. High-quality, do-it-yourself recording and remixing programs allow artists to record an album on a laptop computer and film a music video on a smartphone. But that means there is more competition than ever for people’s attention, while artists earn less from digital sales than they could earn from CD sales in the days before Internet downloading.

“Since all this ‘do-it-yourself’ stuff happened, labels have been relying on artists to get themselves to the first rung or two on their own,” notes Dan Krimm ’78, who spent 15 years after Prince­ton trying to establish a career as a jazz musician. “Back in the old days, independent musicians were just the ones who were still trying to be signed by labels and who hadn’t been successful in doing that yet,” he says. “All of a sudden, a lot more people can produce quality recordings without having to have the resources of a label or even an independent label.”

Krimm has given up on his dream on becoming a full-time artist. After self-producing two albums — using his savings, money from his parents, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts — in 1993 Krimm “ran out of gas.” He still plays occasionally with the jazz group Fortune Smiles and recently re-released his two albums. But he acknowledges that a ­do-it-yourself musical career “is still a middle-class endeavor, not for someone struggling to make ends meet.”

A growing number of independent artists are questioning whether they need record companies at all. Record labels always have taken a share of the profits from song sales, but today are reaching into revenue sources that traditionally belonged almost exclusively to the artist, such as merchandise and concert-ticket sales, musicians say.

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1 Response to The D-I-Y road to stardom

Andrew Hall Cutler *85 Says:

2013-01-15 09:31:29

A similar transition is occurring in book publishing. Those of us with useful books people look for can self-publish and make it today because of the Internet. Usually we make far more than if a traditional publisher had taken us in. The biggest problem is that selling books, like music, is a lot of "personality," and not all of us are insane enough to have the mania and lack of interpersonal boundaries that makes selling books, music and art easy. However, this is not a problem having a publisher solves. Also, while publishers may polish your work up far better than you can -- my books being a prime example of poor editing, poor indexing and crappy production -- that isn't what sells them. Content sells. My books have unique content, so they sell year after year. After a while, I realized opportunity was hitting me on the head and saying "Yo, dude! Pay attention to me! Here I am!" so I'm trying to get my act together to write more. In case you are interested, and are the sales pages for the books. My Princeton experience was actually very poor preparation for this new career in many ways. However, the credential (a Ph.D. in chemistry) is quite useful for credibility, and certain aspects of the experience alienated me enough to let me take a jaded view of how things are "supposed" to be. Also, frankly, while Princeton DOES have a high quality of student, it is not all that high. However, the life SUCCESS of the students is very much in excess of their apparent academic "quality." Clearly, people who put their mind to it can succeed, and Princeton is very good at inculcating this in the undergraduate students. While this is much less so among the graduate students, I got the message and got to working instead of dabbling when I had a book to write. By luck, this happened in a timely manner to be one of the few "educated" people to ignore publishers and just get a book on the market. I don't think it ever would have seen print if I'd worked with a publisher. The Internet brings us back to an age of direct relations between buyer and seller, and much more word-of-mouth sales. If you just go do things without letting yourself get paralyzed by studying them, or seduced by how you're "supposed" to do them "right," you can thrive in this new marketplace, doing things that would never generate enough revenue to support the bureaucracy at a publisher AND pay you money, too. If you want to do this kind of thing, here are some very simple suggestions: Find something you love doing so you're willing to work as hard as necessary at it. If you don't know what it is yet, get a job or another degree until you are alienated enough to figure it out. Read "The Ultimate Sales Letter." This is to selling what Machiavelli and the classics are to human nature. Ignore other people's terms of debate. The First Amendment means you don't have to adhere to anyone else's editorial standards as to what you discuss, what music you play, what and whom you ignore, etc. You create. Do it to your own standards. A Princeton education does prepare people for that.
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